The Happy Manifesto

Is employee happiness really a viable metric for success? with Pieter Jelle de Brue

Employee happiness makes a big contribution to a company’s success, as can self-management. But how do you know what’s really working, driving the business forwards, and helping it meet its targets?

This week’s guest is Pieter Jelle de Brue, founder of digital agency Statik, a company that values employee happiness and has adopted a self-managing structure with multiple autonomous teams. They’re continuing to grow and evolve, and one of the metrics they’re currently conducting an experiment to find out if what people say about employee happiness really does have a measurable impact on a company’s bottom line.

Pieter’s tips for a happy workplace

  • Trust people to organise themselves when the purpose and goals are clear
  • Run small experiments to continuously evolve and improve
  • Value employee happiness as a measure of success

Links

Transcript
Maureen:

Hi and welcome to the Happy Manifesto.

Maureen:

My name is Maureen.

Henry:

And my name is Henry, and today we have on our podcast a Belgian company called Statik.

Henry:

And we have their, their founder, Pieter, and they talk about how creating Happiness at work is more important than traditional metrics.

Maureen:

I'm looking forward to this.

Maureen:

So to begin with, let's share our joys.

Maureen:

So Henry, what's your joy at work?

Henry:

Well, I'm very excited about our Happy Workplace Conference, which takes place on the 15th of May and is hybrid.

Henry:

It's live and online, and we've got a, a, a whole bunch of speakers.

Henry:

We've got, uh, Michelle Zanini who's the, the, um, or co-author of Humano, which is also, uh, the other author is is Gary Hamill.

Henry:

Um, we've got Isaac Getz, who authored Freedom Inc.

Henry:

We've got Karen Bradshaw, who's, uh, the CEO of, of the Charity Finance Group, and he's talking about love

Maureen:

That's a great lineup.

Maureen:

And we still got more coming

Henry:

We've still got more coming.

Henry:

More coming.

Henry:

And of course the great thing about about the Happy Workplace is we have tons of breakouts.

Henry:

We get to meet lots of people even online.

Henry:

Even in in, in, in Live.

Henry:

And it's, it's, it's just a fabulous event.

Henry:

15th of

Henry:

May.

Maureen:

And even better, there's prizes.

Henry:

Yes.

Henry:

They're they're,

Maureen:

There is So that is your joy.

Maureen:

So I'm gonna share my joy, but my joy is not at work.

Maureen:

It's just general joy, and my joy is that I'm gonna go and see the Northern Lights.

Maureen:

I am, I've just had this thing that I, you know, for ages I've been saying that I would love to go and see the Northern Lights.

Maureen:

So I really wanted to go to Iceland, but, uh, can't we going where there's a volcano on eruption?

Maureen:

So,

Henry:

No.

Maureen:

no.

Maureen:

You know, I love nature, but we would not when nature's turbulent.

Maureen:

So I'm going to Norway, so wherever I can see those Northern Lights, that's where I'll be.

Maureen:

And then the reason why I wanted to share that joy was um, it just reminded me that even in a great workplace, like Happy, they really focus on wellbeing.

Maureen:

So we, that's top and it's about taking the time, but it's actually down to us to take the time, you know, so I'm being very conscious of, you know, if I'm happy and well, then I will be happy and well at work.

Henry:

Absolutely.

Henry:

let's go with Pieter.

Henry:

Hi Pieter.

Henry:

You are founder of Statik.

Henry:

So do tell me what does Statik do?

Pieter:

Hi, um, Henry and Maureen.

Pieter:

Well, Statik is, we're, we're a Belgian company based in, uh, in Leuven in Belgium.

Pieter:

And we're a, what people call a digital agency in the sense that we create all things digital for our clients, like, um, for instance, from websites to recording podcasts to digital strategies and so on.

Pieter:

We cover a broad range, but who we do it for, um, is, is, is a little more narrow in the sense that we use the sustainable development goals from the United Nations as our guiding principles.

Pieter:

And that helps us decide which projects we would like to contribute to our time and skill to.

Pieter:

So very broad range of, of of, of, um, uh, of services to a very narrow range of clients.

Maureen:

So in saying that you, you said about guiding principles, and this is what you use in order to determine your clients.

Maureen:

Tell us more about your guiding principles.

Pieter:

Well, when we started out 20 years ago, uh, ago, we had a strong ethical compass, but there were, there was no such thing as the sustainable development goals by the nations, by the United Nations.

Pieter:

Um, they were, uh, launched in 2015, if I'm not mistaken.

Pieter:

And all, all these, all these years, we ask ourselves, how should we decide, which projects we contribute to and which we rather not contribute to?

Pieter:

And then all of a sudden in 2015 when these sustainable development goals were launched, they felt like a perfect fit to what we thought was important to us.

Pieter:

And we discussed internally and decided to adopt those to make a decision in, in, in the type of project that we wanted to do more of.

Pieter:

In the sense that we all believe that we should use business as a force for goods, uh, as is the the tagline for, for B Corp, which we are just like you are.

Pieter:

And we tried to figure out how we could, could make that come real, become a reality, if you can't just say that while not doing anything at all.

Pieter:

Um, and this felt like the perfect fit.

Pieter:

Um, and when we discuss internally, everyone.

Pieter:

All of a sudden agreed, um, and said, we really like working here, but now we know why as well.

Pieter:

Um, we've been using those ever since, and, and it's, it's been a, we feel it's been a very good, uh, decision for us to, to have made.

Henry:

So over your 20 years, you have moved from a hierarchical structure to a flat self-managing structure.

Henry:

Tell, tell us how you managed to do that.

Pieter:

hierarchical was always, I, I've, I've, I've never worked in any other company than my own, so I've never sensed or, or felt how it was, uh, to work for, uh, for someone else.

Pieter:

So I, I always had a strong, strong ethical compass, but I thought I had to do things like I saw people do in other companies as well.

Pieter:

So I adopted, uh, what I saw in other companies as our way of organizing things internally.

Pieter:

But somehow that didn't quite feel right in the sense that I never felt like, telling people what to do and so on.

Pieter:

Yet on the other hand, I felt like I had to.

Pieter:

Um, I was in this, there was this paradox and in, I think it was 2010, 2011, I read a book by Frederick Lalu, which is a fellow Belgian.

Pieter:

And we decided to adopt the principles that were introduced in that book, because it felt like an interesting way of looking at things.

Pieter:

The base, uh, the baseline being trust people to organize themselves.

Pieter:

Um, if the goal is clear and the purpose is clear and they know why they work at your company, trust them to organize themselves around that, uh, purpose.

Pieter:

And please don't try and control them, um, or tell them what to do.

Pieter:

Which is something that I introduce but wasn't exactly immediately accept by everyone, because some people said, everything's working out fine the way it does now.

Pieter:

So why, why should we change anything?

Pieter:

Uh, while the, on the other part of the team said, oh, it's new, it's shiny, let's do this.

Pieter:

So we decided to frame it as an experiment and there was a, our first experiment that we ever did, um, in the sense that we said, we're going to work in self-organizing teams during three months, and we'll see how it works out.

Pieter:

If it works out, we'll continue doing it.

Pieter:

If it doesn't, we'll see why it does not work, see if we should, uh, change a few things here and there.

Pieter:

And if it doesn't work at all, we just go back to how it was before and continue working like that.

Pieter:

And I think it was about one and a half months in, and everyone felt like this was so natural and so logical that they could decide how to work, where to work, who to work for, who to work with, and so on that, most of them had forgotten, but the fact that it was an experiment, uh, that we, uh, were only doing temporarily.

Pieter:

So basically we've been working like that ever since.

Pieter:

Obviously, we've, we've done changes here and there.

Pieter:

We run into, uh, little walls, big walls, um, and, and, and learn things, uh, after we got back up.

Pieter:

But then again, it's, it's, it's how we've worked ever since.

Pieter:

And, uh, the only agreement that these teams, um, because the idea of teams is very important in this, in this, uh, in this way of working that we adopted.

Pieter:

The, these teams had to be able to, um, invoice a certain minimum amount of their clients at the end of the month just to make sure that we could make pay payroll and so on.

Pieter:

But apart from that, they could do whatever they wanted, um, um, and they could offer the services that they wanted and so on.

Maureen:

You know, you said, uh, initially, you had those who were a bit skeptical.

Maureen:

So what do you think was the thing that actually got them to realize?

Maureen:

I know you said that it was, they felt like it was logical, but was there anything, one part, particular thing that you think worked?

Pieter:

Yeah.

Pieter:

Most people that were skeptical were afraid that they would have to deal with financials of a team or things that they weren't quite interested in, that they wanted someone else.

Pieter:

Maybe some people even wanted someone else to tell them what to do and how to organize their days.

Pieter:

and they soon discovered that even that was still all right.

Pieter:

If, if in a self-organizing team, a self-managing team, some people take up less of the, um, financial responsibility for instance than others.

Pieter:

That's all right as well, as long as the team as a whole works towards, towards specific goals and gets the results and so on.

Pieter:

So when they discovered that they could still continue more or less like they were used to while on the other hand, um, taking responsibility as a team, that was, I think what convinced most that maybe in the end this was a better way to work.

Henry:

Now what I'm very excited by is that, uh, because this is the Happy Manifesto podcast.

Henry:

I'm very excited that you are using happiness as your measure of success rather than traditional metrics.

Henry:

Uh, can you tell us more about that?

Pieter:

Yeah, we, there's something that we've, uh, only recently begun, um, to, to adopt as, um, as a way of looking at things.

Pieter:

Because we strongly believe that employee Happiness is very closely correlated to more traditional metrics, um, like margin efficiency, uh, ABIT and so on.

Pieter:

And our gut feeling has always been that, uh, that there may even be a causal relationship in the sense that happy people lead to better results.

Pieter:

Um, I think that's been researched over and over again, but we, we don't believe things until we experience, uh, them ourselves.

Pieter:

So we try to figure, uh, and, and figure that out by basing decisions on what leads to more Happiness instead of

Pieter:

better, better results.

Pieter:

So if we need to make an important, decision, no matter about what, we always look, look at the decision that leads to the most happy people, um, instead of to the most, whatever, uh, invoiced amount.

Henry:

Can you give an example of where that, where that's, of where you did that?

Pieter:

I, I can think of one big example, which wasn't the most recent, but the way that we hire people.

Pieter:

I read your book, Henry, and, uh, people get to choose their own managers is something that you say in, in the book, which is, which is absolutely true and I truly believe in as well.

Pieter:

But we decided that people need to, uh, hire all of their colleagues.

Pieter:

So because we, we, we run small teams about five to eight people, which is a safe environment, if we get new applications and we work mostly on spontaneous applications, people have a, the, the applicant has a small talk with someone about just trying to figure out if there's a culture fit.

Pieter:

But if there is a culture fit, they get to talk to the teams.

Pieter:

Uh, and the teams, themselves, they ask the questions that they want to ask.

Pieter:

They get to know each other more deeply, and then they get to decide whether.

Pieter:

They choose for each other, the applicant and the team, because in the end, that leads to more happiness in the broader sense.

Pieter:

But the odds that this will work out are a lot higher because people choose for each other and they are going to make sure that this works out.

Pieter:

Uh, instead of someone coming in and telling them this, your, your new colleague, make it work.

Pieter:

So this is one of those small decisions, uh, that has a, a much bigger impact than anticipates.

Pieter:

Um, coincidentally or not, when we became a B Corp, uh, we got a lot more spontaneous applications.

Pieter:

And the people that spontaneously applied had a much better reason why they decided to, to apply with a company like ours.

Pieter:

Which in itself made for a better fit to begin with.

Pieter:

To the extent that we decided why not use all of these spontaneous applications as a source of new colleagues, uh, to put it that way.

Pieter:

And we, we more or less dropped the, uh, more explicit, uh, positions that we put on our website and just, um, just put a open, uh, application as the, as a primary way of applying with us.

Pieter:

And that that has to led to such wonderful, wonderful colleagues, who are very engaged, who, who want to make sure they, they bring their entire selves to work because they just want to contribute to this theme, to the environment, to the company and so on, in, in, in, in a way that's, to me, has at least, uh, feels like it's much higher than before.

Maureen:

Oh, I love that.

Maureen:

I love that.

Maureen:

Okay, so you've talked about, um, teams and the importance of like having the teams and that help make those decisions.

Maureen:

So how do you manage conflicts, resolutions?

Maureen:

So how do you navigate that when things may not actually go right?

Pieter:

Well, the baseline is a team is about five to eight people, which is a safe environment for people to work in.

Pieter:

We try and, um, and avoid themes, being bigger than that and smaller because then they won't have the leverage to, to get work done.

Pieter:

Five to eight people is a safe environment, which means that in these teams, it, it, it sounds very logical, but creating, creating an environment where open and respectful communication is a norm is a baseline in, in how we work.

Pieter:

But then disagreement and conflict aren't always issues per se, as long as they're resolved in a, in a, in a proper way, um, then these could lead to better results or better outcomes than when they're just staying below the waterline.

Pieter:

So if anyone sees or experiences something that can be improved upon.

Pieter:

They're free to make or even, it's their, um, moral duty to make a proposal to improve things, which will then be subject this proposal, which will then be subject to consent in in the teams.

Pieter:

I'm sure you're aware of the, the whole consent, governance, thing in which people get to decide.

Pieter:

Is this safe enough for now if what you're proposing and is it good?

Pieter:

Um, is it good enough for now?

Pieter:

Sorry, and safe enough to try?

Pieter:

Is this not going to do?

Pieter:

Irreparable damage, then we'll just proceed.

Pieter:

If I don't have any clear objections of how this will damage the health of the, of our team, of our company, then we'll just move forward with it.

Pieter:

And then that takes a bit of the edge of conflicts.

Pieter:

Um, because everyone can make a proposal and everyone can suggest how to make things better, um, and is and, and is, um, even encouraged to do so.

Pieter:

So, um, issues are resolved at the level at which they're created or experienced, uh, which is much stronger than, uh, people, people fighting and bickering about the issues that need to be resolved up high in, in, in the structure.

Pieter:

' Henry: Cause consent is very different from consensus, isn't it?

Pieter:

It's about is it safe enough to try?

Pieter:

Absolutely consensus is more about getting everyone on the same page and making sure that everyone has their own bits, way of seeing things in the, in the solution, um, which is not always the best in our opinion, or doesn't always lead to the best outcome, uh, which is not, not the entirely same thing.

Maureen:

I'm gonna take you right back 'cause there was an interesting word that you used, especially when you said about the self-managing and it was about experiments,.

Maureen:

And so is this something that you do continuously?

Maureen:

So short experiments to see how you go?

Pieter:

Yeah.

Pieter:

Run.

Pieter:

Running small and bigger experiments is, is is part of how we try to keep evolving in the sense that we, we always feel the further down the path we are, the more it becomes clear that we'll never be there.

Pieter:

Um, but we'll always have to keep exploring, uh, how we can.

Pieter:

How we can make a bigger impact, how we can be become happier ourselves, how we can, um, create more, more, more space for new experiments and so on.

Pieter:

Um, so pretty much everything, it's, it all started out with the experiment about self-organizing teams.

Pieter:

That was the very first experiment that we did.

Pieter:

Um, the switch to using happiness as a driving principle is one of our latest experiments.

Pieter:

Also the way that we hired the spontaneous applications was, was a result of that.

Pieter:

For instance, letting go of more traditional performance reviews is something that we tried.

Pieter:

And, um, we switched to just very, very simple questions that people get to ask their direct and indirect colleagues.

Pieter:

What's a strong point and what's the way for me to grow?

Pieter:

And that's the only input that they get and that they use as a, as a, as a starting point for a, for a discussion with the, with the part of their team.

Henry:

So who do they do those one-to-ones with who?

Henry:

Because you don't have managers, do you?

Henry:

You

Pieter:

No, we, we do have, we do have people that have some sort of natural, uh, leadership in each team.

Pieter:

Um, people that are a little more mature or are chosen by their colleagues, obviously to lead those, uh, conversations.

Pieter:

But they're never one-on-one conversations.

Pieter:

We do have those as well.

Pieter:

Um, but there are always two or three, uh, people.

Pieter:

And, and the, the person, um, he or she, themselves.

Pieter:

In the sense that, again, that creates a, a safer environment, uh, in our opinion.

Pieter:

Like a manager of a team, uh, or the, the team leader, whatever you want to call it, and someone that they chose themselves to be in the conversation as well, leads to a, to a more interesting and, and, and less one-sided discussion if there's a discussion.

Pieter:

Uh, but in most cases, these, these talks, which we do twice a year should not lead to, to surprises.

Pieter:

The more or less a looking forward and looking back type of moment.

Pieter:

And, and the input that they get from their colleagues in their own wording is much more powerful.

Pieter:

Ratings on a scale from one to five, whatever, on 25 different parameters as you want.

Henry:

So it was, it is just two.

Henry:

You've got, you just, you've got two

Pieter:

Yeah.

Pieter:

What's a, what's a strong point on how can I grow?

Maureen:

Pieter, I'm gonna be controversial.

Maureen:

Well, no, I'm not gonna be controversial.

Maureen:

Okay.

Maureen:

Because what, what I, I like is that this is really great and I love what you are sharing, and people tend to ask, okay, so what is the other side of it?

Maureen:

What's, uh, what's the point if something doesn't go right or what other things to look out for?

Pieter:

Um, yeah, that, that's a good question.

Pieter:

But because these are the things that we, we started running into, more or less as soon as we got the basics on track.

Pieter:

One thing that we learned and that we used as a, as a way to change the way that we work, for instance, is we used to work in small teams, but they were organized more linearly, um, in the sense that when a project comes in, it started off in the first team, which had all the, uh, strategic people, for instance.

Pieter:

Then it went ba, it went forward to the next team.

Pieter:

And we, we soon discovered that there was still an ownership problem in the sense that people would just throw stuff over the, over the hedge to and, uh, to the next team.

Pieter:

So no one really owned the project, which was, uh, which was something that quickly allowed us to, uh, organize ourselves in, in multidisciplinary teams in the sense that each team has all the skill and people to cover the full lifecycle of a project.

Pieter:

So that was one of the first decisions.

Pieter:

And the other thing that we discovered that can be a bit of a pitfall, is that people are too kind to each other.

Pieter:

People don't give enough feedback, uh, of the kind that, that, that they don't always want to hear.

Pieter:

So this is something that we ha we we're still working on.

Pieter:

And for instance, uh, new people joining the teams find it very hard to adopt the idea of being more, more open, more, uh, more direct, while at the same time, not losing the kindness.

Pieter:

Um, so that's a, that's a, that can be a bit of a, of a problem.

Henry:

And so, so tell me, you, um, you, you've, I think you've talking about creating an ecosystem of organizations that share these values.

Henry:

Um, what other organizations have you become involved with?

Pieter:

Yeah, we, we got a lot of questions from clients and, and partners about how we work internally, how we're organized internally, because people always find it very interesting to, to look at the internals of, of the partners they're working with.

Pieter:

Um, and more and more we were even approached by companies that we like to partner up in some way, that was more, in close partnerships that we, we were doing at the time, which got us thinking, what if we could bring together companies that share these values?

Pieter:

And that also want to build happy workplaces, but in a way that, um, that if someone feels at home in one of these companies, they'll also feel at home in any other, uh, company in this ecosystem, even if their services are not, uh, complimentary, even if they're doing completely different

Pieter:

things but shared is values and people, then we get to the point where we can start creating shared jobs across, uh, different companies and roles.

Pieter:

So for instance, we're, we're actively looking at having a carpentry shop, a woodworkers shop join our, our little system.

Pieter:

And if we ask a question in our digital team, um, who of you would like to spend, for instance, one day in a week working with their hands, uh, building, uh, building stuff out of wood, for instance, they, they'll, they'll queue up just to have the opportunity to, yeah, absolutely.

Pieter:

Um, and, and if we do that, if we, if we get to the point where, for instance, we have five or six or seven companies, uh, joining our, our little system in what, in which people can.

Pieter:

Be the, their, their full selves and create the job to fulfill all of their passions and, um, get to choose themselves how to distribute their time over these, as long as there's obviously some sort of economic re reality that, that they keep in mind, if they, if there's no work or no, no, no opportunity, they shouldn't be doing it.

Pieter:

But then we can create a much more resilient system in which everyone is happy if it all works out perfectly.

Pieter:

So this is something that we're looking right now.

Pieter:

We need to take a few hurdles to get that done.

Pieter:

For instance, you can be on on different payrolls in a flexible manner, uh, in, in Belgium.

Pieter:

So we need to figure out whether we should create some sort of intermediary company just to fix the issues.

Pieter:

Issues or work within internships, for instance, to get that, all of these hurdles that we need to take.

Pieter:

But it's very, it's very interesting.

Pieter:

We, we get a lot of interest if we talk about this, this way of working.

Pieter:

And currently there's, there's one company that has joined us, so there's two of us right now, and we're, we're talking to a few more, uh, to see if, if we could make this work.

Maureen:

Oh, it's really exciting.

Maureen:

I may have to come to Belgium in the end.

Maureen:

We were talking about that at the beginning.

Pieter:

And the knowledge uh, Yeah.

Pieter:

Yeah.

Pieter:

Yeah.

Henry:

So, so tell me, Pieter, what are your three tips for happy workplaces?

Pieter:

Well, um, these are things that I discovered in the course of the, of the past 20 years, I think.

Pieter:

Um, first of all would be just let people do what they're good at and what they enjoy doing, um, and good things will follow.

Pieter:

If people's personal goals align with their company goals, then in the end, you'll both be helping each other reach your own goals which is very, very powerful.

Pieter:

And, and consider real flywheel emotion.

Pieter:

So that, that will be the first tip.

Pieter:

The second tip, I think it's, it's obvious by now by, uh, from what I heard from your podcast in your book, but I.

Pieter:

Don't tell people what to do and don't constantly check on them.

Pieter:

Try and remove all sorts of control and competition from the system and much better things will ensue, I think, uh.

Pieter:

And then third would be, um, in our experience, creating a safe space where people can experiment and fail and learn together is very, very powerful.

Pieter:

Like small teams, like the ones I mentioned, five to eight people would be good and safe size to do just that.

Pieter:

And currently there's just, uh, eight or nine teams in our company and these teams, put them on a row in in a row, and they are the company, and that, that's very powerful.

Pieter:

uh, in my opinion.

Maureen:

Pieter, it is been great listening to you.

Pieter:

It is been great talking to Yeah,

Henry:

has.

Henry:

Thank you so much.

Pieter:

no, thank you for the invitation and uh, and for the podcast and, um, yeah, maybe we'll meet in, uh, in London in a couple months time on the, uh,

Henry:

Well, you're coming to our conference, aren't

Henry:

you?

Pieter:

am, yeah.

Maureen:

Oh, brilliant.

Maureen:

Well, we'll see you then.

Maureen:

I just love the thing that came up about having small teams, so safe spaces, safe size, you know, and to have that you need a small team.

Henry:

And I'd like the bit about the values.

Henry:

'cause if values are, are clear, then anybody can make a decision.

Maureen:

Totally.

Maureen:

But the fact that they're attracting people that meet those values.

Maureen:

So, you know, again, that that whole new way of bringing people on as well, making sure that all the teams are involved in making that decision.

Henry:

But also, uh, the Happiness thing, the Happiness about how they, uh, make sure that things are based on people's Happiness rather than traditional metrics.

Henry:

That's very exciting.

Maureen:

it really is.

Maureen:

It is.

Maureen:

It is a showing that actually you can bring joy into the workplace, place, workplaces can be joyful,

Henry:

Indeedy.

Henry:

And so check out our website, happy.co.uk, subscribe to this podcast.

Maureen:

Continue creating joy in the workplace.

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